Name: Jonathan Kawchuk
Occupation: composer and environmentalist
Current Release: Everywhen on Paper Bag Records
Recommendations: .neon by Lantlôs / The Overstory by Richard Powers
If you enjoyed this interview with Jonathan Kawchuk visit his website to find out more.
When did you start writing/producing/playing music and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
We only listened to new releases growing up so music always had this fun sense of discovery to it. Maybe it’s because music was abstract enough that I could fold all my other interests into it.
The first piece of gear I got was a field recorder and right away I started going into the forest and sampling rocks and sticks for percussion. I began taking vocal lessons when I first started experimenting with harsh vocals, and I got this little synth that came with basic recording software. I could collage and obsess like I did previously with different animals or sports or whatever, but those could come along for the ride too. I didn’t have to pick between music and everything else.
Some people experience intense emotion when listening to music, others see colours or shapes. What is your own listening experience like and how does it influence your approach to music?
It’s super emotional for me, but I also have a really strong taste associated with music and language. I don't at all have anything synesthetic going on but I have asked a band of mine to make something sound more “lemon cake” and was justly ridiculed.
I’m really big into the ingredients of music and what they have to say about the world outside of the actual piece. I think sometimes people assume I’m a big “sound for sound's sake” kind of person but I’m no more that than a sports journalist is a “words person”. Words are their tools, but sports are their thing. So for me I’m always getting at a subject, and I choose sound based on how it relates to the thing I’m trying to talk about, not always based on how it sounds (or how lemon cake it is).
How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?
I feel like a lot of development and finding a voice is a process of peeling back artifice for authenticity. For me, it was eliminating bad influences or copying conventions (I know it is probably impossible) and trying to think of my own subject and sound as though I’ve never heard music before, and that the work will never be compared against other music.
My first record North was the first time I realised, “I might not write stuff like this forever, but this is the first thing I’ll be proud to show forever.” I had found my voice for that time in my life. Records for me are maybe a thesis of my experience – I leave everything I have on the court. I have nothing else to say after writing Everywhen. Luckily I’m always changing by virtue of continuing to be alive. Maybe that's why it takes me so long to release records: I need to change enough to have something new to say before I write something new.
Tell me a bit about your sense of identity and how it influences both your preferences as a listener and your creativity as an artist, please.
I think that writing has helped answer that. You need to write the next note so you need to ask, “what is this passage about?” Then you need to ask, “what is this tune about?” Then “what is this album about?” “Well, what do I want to say?” “Well, what do I believe?” And finally, “who the f— am I?”
But it’s not enough to ask – you need to answer all of this because that next note needs to be written. And the next note. And the next note. And so you are constantly asking and answering these huge questions about your place in the world as you write. I think David Lang talks about this – I’m without question butchering it.
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?
Well, I made a slideshow for everyone involved in the last record to try to explain what it was all about, so let me share some of those concepts:
● Athleticism, exhaustion, replenishment, and the imposing/comforting nature of the Rockies are even more beautiful when they all interact.
● The only way humans can create “biophonic” sound is with breath and sound, and if we are going to record these, we have to play them back outdoors so they can interact with the forest and become “biophonic” once again. Capturing these natural spaces literally and emotionally with music and audio is important as they’ll likely be gone by album #3.
● I want it to be hyper affecting, unafraid to be so emotional that it’s abrasive and uncomfortable, and based in reality – this is not abstract or “ambient”. This is non-cochlear!
● Transcendental black metal mentality – use harsh, primal, visceral sound for good not evil.
● Capturing these natural spaces literally and emotionally with music and audio is important as they’ll likely be gone by album #3.
How would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?
Music of the future forever. It’s way more fun to try (and without exception fail) to create music outside of culture. I think the debate over originality and innovation and how that relates to authenticity is a little funny.
I feel like originality and innovation are a product of authenticity. Rather than being some weird goal in and of themselves, can they not just ensue from digging deep into your own preferences and tastes as a wholly novel person never before born in quite the same way, with quite the same experiences? Isn’t it sort of incredible we aren’t all making entirely unique work and we get so in our own way trying to stake our claim against other art? I’m trying to question every single part of making music this way and it’s a good time.
Over the course of your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools - and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?
It’s all about the performance! Great players and performers who feel safe but who are challenged. Let the experts do their thing, and sometimes I’ll use gimmicks and games to get them improvising in a weird way. Learning to compose through the talk-back mic at the studio is maybe my biggest tool; field recording and vocal performance have always played a huge part too.
More than consistency, I like learning new tools that fit the rules for each project. For Everywhen it felt right to try to become an expert at Dolby Atmos for 3D sound – which included working with the software Sound Particles, and gathering multi-channel impulse responses (for you nerds out there). The tech is always in service of the subject though. Right now, I’m learning concatenative synthesis and building this strange instrument called a Daxophone since that seems right for the palette of the next thing.